If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary, Sermon Series

Current Situation: When We Disagree

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.

(Romans 14:1, NRSV)

As students return to school, we are accustomed to gearing up church life for the program year. People who have been traveling return home. Study groups and classes begin again. This year we may be starting things in hybrid fashion, like the kids in my local school system, with some mélange of outdoor and online worship, or allowing only small groups to gather in person. Whatever our plans, there is a different kind of pressure to come back together than we may have felt over the summer, and a diminishing of the distractions that occupied people who may disagree with our decisions to return, or not, to more familiar ways of gathering. 

No matter what pastors or church leaders have discerned, or how thoughtfully, it’s likely some in the community will disagree. For those who have worked hard on plans and protocols, the complaints can sting, particularly when they take the form of a veiled threat to stop giving, or a detailed report on how other churches are doing it differently, or a blistering all-caps email. 

How can we be the church when we disagree?

If we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a warning about “quarreling over opinions.” Whatever you do or eat or observe, he says, do it in honor of and with thanksgiving to God. Among the quarrelsome Romans, some judged their siblings in Christ, and some even despised them. In this contentious season, particularly for those of us in the U.S., where it’s almost too easy to draw a connection between church policies and presumed political stances, we may relate. It’s not just pastors on the receiving end of complaints, and it’s only human to feel disappointed, misunderstood, even betrayed by the mistrust of people we thought we knew well.

It’s important to remember that we are not the first or the only communities of faith to struggle with differences in belief and understanding. We cannot control the opinions of church members and friends, but we can control how we treat them. Paul reminds us that we are all going to be accountable to God. How do we want to be judged in the end? 

When we turn to the gospel, Jesus offers a vivid caution in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. He offers a parable about debt and a “king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23) The familiar and uncomfortable story shows the figure with great power behaving with generosity while the figure with little power seizes as much as he can hold onto, causing harm to one of his fellows. The forgiven person cannot see the irony of his action, or does not care. He is looking out only for his own good.

When children are baptized at my wife’s church, she asks the other children if they will show love to the newly baptized, putting it in terms they understand. “Will you show them where to find the snack table? If you see them fall down in the hallway, will you help them get up again?” These basic principles of care for one another ought to be unforgettable to all of us. We don’t knock each other down to get to the snack table first!

How can we be the church when we disagree – particularly in this current situation? 

I believe we start by trying to see one another’s point of view, then by taking the time to explain why we hold ours. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to dehumanize the person who disagrees with us, to devalue their perspective, or denigrate their intelligence. We have examples of such behavior non-stop on social media, sometimes from people we know well. (Maybe even from ourselves.) We’re called to do better, to show some regard for the humanity of the person who disagrees with us. 

We’re called to remember God’s mercy to us and extend that mercy to others. 

For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.

If I Were Preaching, Matthew 14:13-21, Reflectionary

On Empty

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

Matthew 14:13-14, NRSV

It’s hard to read this week’s gospel lesson without referring to the preceding verses that set the scene. John, who prepared the way for Jesus, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it. This summer I’ve heard many stories about violent losses, not just on the news but from friends I wish I could comfort. Sometimes we can only sit with the trauma of the incomprehensible and allow ourselves to grieve.

Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Mark’s gospel established the idea of Jesus taking time apart to pray and renew himself, only to be followed by the searching disciples or roused by them from a much-needed nap. Here he tries but is followed not only by his friends but also by crowds of people. I imagine him feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. 

Consider the context of the times, in which an oppressive regime wielded control over their lives and threatened their community values. I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, grieving, even a little desperate, willing to trust a teacher who had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention. 

And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others.* I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. Writing about this passage years ago, I said, “It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.”

For those of us still worshiping online, or in person but at a distance complicated by safety protocols, finding that hope can be complicated. We are without the common elements and practices that restored us so regularly we may not have realized their sustaining power. We may well identify with the disciples, reporting to Jesus that the crowd is hungry.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

Matthew 14:16-17

We have nothing here, they said. How relatable! Pastors and church leaders, businesses and schools systems and families, people with jobs and those without have been looking around for months now to figure out how to manage in untenable circumstances. We have experienced the literal emptiness of grocery store shelves and the existential emptiness of lost plans and experiences.

We feel empty now, but we know what happened next. Jesus made more than enough out of what seemed like nothing. He did not call down bread from heaven like manna in the wilderness. He made more out of what was already available.

If I were preaching this week, I would acknowledge some of the ways we are running on empty. I encourage you – as I am encouraging myself – to name the grief we all feel as part of the story, just as it was part of Jesus’ story. Then turn toward identifying what might fill both us and others. What bread and fish do we have to share? What resources are available in our community of faith that God might multiply?

Jesus had compassion for the people. May we be moved to acts of compassion in his name.

*The Greek in verse 14 indicates a visceral response to the needs of others.

I will be taking time for professional development and vacation in August.
My weekly Reflectionary email (subscribe here) will move to Tuesdays when it returns on September 8, and these blog posts will push later in the week.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Who works for us?

So he said, "I am Abraham's servant." 
(Genesis 24:34, NRSV)

As Revised Common Lectionary preachers continue to work through the multi-generational family history of Genesis, this week we meet an unnamed servant of Abraham who is tasked with a dynasty-making errand, to find a bride for Isaac. I’ve read this story many times, and my reflections on it in the past were more familial and less political. We can see the fairy tale element in it. The “right” young woman is at the well, and in the end, she will marry a man who loves her and who, though not a literal prince, is the heir to our faith heritage. And they lived happily ever after… (until next Sunday). I am also influenced by my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney‘s reading of the story in Womanist Midrash, particularly her description of Rebekah’s strong character nurtured in a matrilineal culture. Her family sends her with Abraham’s servant only after she consents to go. (v. 58)

We find systems of social status in this long ago story that still exist. The meeting at the well with Rebekah is told twice, once as it happens and then in this retelling by the servant. The segments of chapter 24 chosen by the lectionary minimize Rebekah’s experience and focus instead on a negotiation promoting the profile of the father of the potential groom by highlighting his wealth. The rich man’s son doesn’t have to travel and be put at risk. A servant will bargain for his bride.

Isaac is a son of privilege.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests against racial injustice point us toward interrogating privilege, both Isaac’s and ours. Who works for us? Whose work supports us and our way of living? Who goes out into the world and risks life and health so that we have what we want? This angle will feel different if you have essential workers in your congregation. They are like the servant who travels to get what his master wants. 

Next week this system of privilege will come to us again in the struggle between Jacob and Esau. I am having a staycation and won’t be writing text reflections for July 12, but I encourage you to read those texts, too, with our current times in mind. The struggle between the two brothers is the same conflict at the root of our sin of racism. Where there is jealousy and competition there is a fear that there will not be enough to go around and a belief that we must win at all costs. This theology of scarcity fuels White Supremacy. We are all captive to it until we are all free from it.